York natives toast to rethinking vodka industry

Holla Spirits, a York, Pa-based company, set off on an entrepreneurial goal to make a vodka more relatable to millennials.

Paid for by: Holla Spirits

A guy walks into a bar and asks for a HOLLAtonic. The bartender needs no instruction: two parts tonic water, one part Holla Vodka.

There’s no joke here, but Patrick Shorb smiles when he tells the story of that night out in York when he ordered the cocktail made with the very brand of spirit he created – all without explaining the recipe.

It was a sign, he thought, that years of research, product development and regulatory wrangling have started to pay off for Holla Spirits, a company he started with his lifelong friend, Matt Glaser.

While brand recognition has been one part of their journey, it’s just a small step in Holla’s mission to redefine how vodka is perceived. And, after years in the making, it seems their time has come.

Patrick joined the family business in York County after graduating college, but a bigger dream lingered in the back of his mind: developing a vodka for his generation.

He devoted long nights and weekends devouring books about the liquor industry. With the help of a West Coast marketing firm, he crafted the brand design and casual lifestyle vibe.

From the beginning, Holla aimed to break the “boring” mold of vodka.

“The Smirnoffs, the Skyys and the Absoluts of the world were dated,” Patrick says. “It’s what our parents drank. Rebranded celebrity gimmicks and outlandish flavors were tiring, while craft emerged as even more boring. We looked at it from a completely clean slate.”

Their goal was to make a vodka more relatable to millennials, so they decided to start with the name, which is a popular slang word for holler — a versatile word for a versatile spirit.

“When we say ‘Holla’ to people, we feel they instantly understand it or they don’t,” Matt says. “We’re not as concerned with those that don’t understand its social aspects.”

Tackling the early challenges

Creating a new product is one thing, but getting that product into the hands of the customer is another, Patrick says. And with the regulations of the liquor industry, that seemed the toughest challenge of all.

“It would have been really easy to just give up,” Patrick says. “But we weren’t ready to be done with it.”

Community members rallied around Holla. Even local restaurateurs Tom Sibol and Jeremiah Anderson, the men behind White Rose Bar and Grill and Rockfish Public House, encouraged the Holla team to keep going. Today, both of those bars – and many others throughout York, Lancaster, Dauphin, and Centre counties – proudly display Holla Vodka bottles and offer special bar menus filled with Holla cocktails.

Another challenge Holla faced was getting its bottle on the shelves next to the big names in Pennsylvania liquor stores. While the buzz about Holla grew in bars back home, the Holla team took to the road to deliver their product to Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. It’s even available in California.

The extra miles paid off, and, after a long wait, Holla Vodka is finally scheduled to be on the shelves of 10 Pennsylvania Wine and Spirits stores. It’s a moment that brings a sigh of relief to Patrick and Matt – but it’s not the climax of their journey. Instead, Patrick says, it’s the launching point.

Bringing in the big players

With hearts set on the future, the Holla team added world-renowned master blender Riannon Walsh, an Ireland native and founder of the Whiskies of the World Expo in San Francisco, as its Director of Artisan Spirits. Riannon is responsible for all production and quality control for Holla’s products at a new distillery near her home in Pottstown, PA.

With Riannon on board, Patrick says the options for future premium products are endless. He hopes to launch the first naturally infused vodka soon, with more expressive vodkas, a rum, whiskey, or gin later on. For now, though, it’s all about shaking up the vodka marketplace.

“I’m really critical about how people enter this industry just because I’ve been in it so long, and I’ve seen so many people fail,” Riannon says. “But Patrick has taken all the right steps, and he’s never afraid to reach out to ask people with more experience to give him more knowledge.”

Some other noteworthy successes for Holla’s first vodka include a gold medal in the 2017 Las Vegas Global Spirits Competition and a silver medal in the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The company will also be featured in the 2018 Nightclub and Bar Show’s emerging brands section in Las Vegas this March.

A worthy fight…the timing is right for something new

Patrick has always been charismatic, creative and self-motivated, Bill Shorb says. He’s been impressed with his son’s continued maturation as Holla grows. As Holla’s vice president and CFO, Bill has taken a supporting role to help with research while being a sounding board.

His insight has supported Holla’s younger founders, who Bill watches with pride, especially when a medical diagnosis could have been reason enough for Patrick to step back.

Diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that can cause serious longer-term consequences, Patrick has come out of stints in the hospital with a fresh perspective that makes it even more special when he hears his vodka ordered at the bar. These experiences also inspired Holla’s charitable giving program “Holla for your Heroes,” dedicated to empathetic charities.

“It’s also a lesson for everybody,” Patrick says. “You should go do what you like. Take the chance. Move on to something different. It can change everything.”

Paid for by Holla Spirits

Get good news in your inbox: Subscribe and we’ll send you the latest features as well as behind-the-scenes looks of our stories and why each story we publish matters to us and the community.